How to Talk to Your Friends and Family Who Aren’t Taking COVID Seriously

Your mom thinks it’s a big fuss for nothing, your aunt is only going to the grocery store, but she’s going three times a week, your best friend thinks it’s fine to see friends, as long as it’s just a few friends at a time. You, on the other hand, have been staying home for weeks, only leaving to go to get essentials once every few weeks. With the new coronavirus sweeping across the country and around the world, families, friends, businesses, healthcare experts, governments, and beyond are all learning how to navigate this situation that no one truly knows how to handle.

Seemingly inevitably, as state and local orders have gone into place one by one, this has resulted in different interpretations of what people should be doing. If your friends and loved ones see all of this differently and aren’t taking social distancing and other prevention measures quite as seriously as you are, it can be really difficult to set aside any concern you may have. But how can you actually have a conversation with them that will be productive, rather than end in a screaming match? First, you might want to reflect on the situation yourself.

“[I]t’s helpful to have a little bit of a check-in with ourselves, about…’do I have that type of closeness in this relationship, to have that kind of conversation,’” Miriam Kirmayer, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and friendship expert, said.


Timing is everything

Once you’ve decided that you should go ahead with the conversation, make sure that you’ve thought through the logistics of the conversation. When should you have it? Who should be involved? Whatever you do, make sure that you’re not turning this conversation into a public shaming session.

“…[W]e recognize that this is gonna be a sensitive conversation, we have it one-on-one, not in front of other people, we don’t want to make anyone feel shamed, and it also helps to have these conversations outside of the context of an argument,” Kirmayer explained. “So we don’t want to kind of attempt to change our friend’s or loved one’s behavior right after we’ve gotten into a large disagreement or argument about what they’re doing. We want to approach it with a certain level of sensitivity.”


Ask about how they’re handling things—don’t lecture

Unsure how to even start? Kirmayer suggested taking a curiosity approach. Don’t go into the conversation ready to tell them everything they’ve done wrong, ask some questions.

“So instead of, again, laying it all out there and making it very clear that this is a very tense conversation that you are planning on having, that you just can’t hold it in any longer, it can help to frame it as a form of questioning,” she explained. “So, ‘I’ve been noticing that we’re handling or responding to this differently. I’d love to hear a little bit more about your feelings in all of this. How have you been handling the difficulties that come with social distancing? And how are you coping and how are you managing and what’s hard for you and here’s what I’m thinking and feeling.’ Framing it from a place of openness and curiosity, again, can be very disarming and allow for more of a dialogue and an exchange, than a kind of lecture. And that can be helpful.”

Though you may want to lecture them, it’s not going to do a whole lot to change their minds, so Kirmayer said you should avoid it. “…[W]hen our loved ones are responding in a way that we feel like is not safe: for them, for us, for our communities, of course we want to lecture them and of course we want to kind of just shake somebody and say, ‘hey, wake up, this isn’t the right thing to be doing,’ but the reality is those kinds of conversations are not going to be helpful in any way, shape, or form,” she explained. “They’re not going to get our message across, they’re going to only kind of increase the tension that we feel in that relationship, and ultimately we’ll probably leave feeling even more frustrated.”


Don’t make it a moral issue

Then, consider the potential effect of how you’re going to say what you’re going to say could have on your friend or family member. This is key because it’s easy to feel attacked or end up getting defensive when someone is saying that they don’t approve of the way you’re acting, particularly if you feel as though they’re not trying to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing or how you may be feeling.

“… [R]eally try and make it a personal not a moral issue,” Kirmayer said. “The reason being, that can very easily be perceived as a criticism. And so we want to not make kind of judgments about the other person, even though we might be thinking or feeling that way. And when I say make it a personal issue, what I mean is to really share why you’re struggling with this. So, why is this difficult for you to see? What are the values of yours that this is interfering with or conflicting with?”

There’s a difference between telling someone that what they’re doing is categorically wrong, and explaining that you’re concerned about what’s happening. Tell them that you’re only even bringing this up because you love them and care about them and want them to be safe and healthy, Kirmayer advised. Make sure you’re giving them an example of the behavior you think is problematic, but, whatever you do, don’t make it seem as though you’ve been tallying up everything they’ve done over the last few weeks or months—it’s hard to not take that personally.

“What we want to avoid is the conversation where we have a long laundry list of all the things that our loved one is doing wrong and all of the reasons why it says something about who they are as a person,” Kirmayer explained. You have to walk a fine line between being specific about which behaviors you mean, while also not piling on or making them feel as though you’re saying that they’re bad. It’s not them as a person, it’s something that they’ve done that you think is unsafe.


Offer suggestions for how you can help them

To make your conversation more constructive, do your best to come into the conversation with empathy, and consider finding ways that you can help your loved ones handle all of this. Emotions are running high right now and it’s hard for most people to figure it all out.

“It can also help to validate for our loved ones why this is hard, why you understand why they’re having trouble respecting social distancing measures, or why they’re struggling to stay and work from home, or why they feel the need to go to the grocery store several times a week—that they’re craving outings,” Kirmayer said. “So to really acknowledge the reasons why people are treating these kinds of guidelines as a little bit flexible when maybe they’re not, and obviously it can help to suggest ways that you might be able to make it easier on them. So offer to get a bit more social time in and connect over Zoom calls or happy hours like that, offer to drop off groceries so they don’t have to go out several times a week, offer to go for a distance walk if that’s realistic.”

Show your friends and family that you care and that you understand and that you really do want to support them—you’re not trying to tear them down or make them feel like they’re bad people.


Set some boundaries if needed

If the conversation really isn’t going anywhere—after all, it’s pretty difficult to change people’s minds or behavior—you have a couple of options. One is to set some boundaries with the person, which Kirmayer said is absolutely OK to do. You’re not ending the relationship when you set boundaries, you’re trying to keep it going over time.

“So what I mean by that is, setting boundaries about talking about social distancing and how you’re spending your time if you know that’s going to cause conflict in your relationship or if you do just feel terribly uncomfortable with what’s going on,” Kirmayer explained. “It’s also OK to create some emotional distance so decide to kind of reach out to the people who do approach the situation with a similar level of seriousness as you and to know that, again, this isn’t necessarily permanent, although I do think we might see some kind of lasting consequences of these types of difficulties, but to know that those kinds of boundaries and barriers are ultimately often the thing that allows us to preserve our relationships over time.”

You can also—relatedly—decide that the conversation isn’t going anywhere and decide to end it and move forward, whether you set clear boundaries or not. “[W]hen you notice yourself just feeling increasingly anxious about what this person is doing, or when you notice yourself feeling increasingly angry or resentful, that can be a clue that it might be time to disengage in some way and to create a little bit of distance to preserve your connection and to preserve your own well-being,” Kirmayer advised.


Don’t forget to take care of yourself as well

If you’re struggling with how friends or family members are responding to the pandemic, it can help to surround yourself with people who are taking a similar approach to yours. Additionally, do your best to respond to your own feelings about everything that’s going on around you.

“We also know that, again, anxiety and frustration and boredom, which frankly is just as difficult, all of these emotions are running really high, and so it helps to find antidotes to that,” Kirmayer said. “And what I mean by that is finding outlets for relaxation, finding outlets for mindfulness, finding outlets for gratitude, and gratitude is kind of a really important antidote for anxiety and so look for the good that exists, not just in your friend’s behavior and the things that loved ones are doing, but also in terms of the community at large. Pay attention to the people who are showing up and supporting others and work to do that yourself. Focus on, again, what you can control. Focus on showing your support to the frontline workers, to friends and connections who are in difficult situations, to neighbors who are struggling and can’t leave for various reasons, those kinds of actions allow us to feel a certain level of control and helpfulness that can be really important when we feel so helpless in these kinds of situations.”


Above all, don’t forget to tell you friends and family that the reason you’re even bringing all of this up in the first place is because you care. Lead with love: for them, for yourself, for your community.